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The 3 mistakes that ruin your mentor relationship

by | 8 Jun, 2015

If you want to be successful in your work life, having a top quality mentor is one those key ingredients that can really make the difference. A mentor is someone who can offer advice because they have expertise and experience that is relevant to want you want to achieve.

But most mentorship relationships don’t last very long. They fizzled out. After a few meetings or calls the usefulness wears off. Usually both mentor and mentee leave the experience feeling detached and dissatisfied.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be like that. I’m going to share 3 very common mistakes people make when starting a mentor-mentee relationship and what you can do about them.

Meet Sarah and Anders 

First, let me tell you about my client Sarah (not her real name). She was looking for support from an expert in her industry who could potentially open doors for her.

Anders (let’s call him that) had way more experience than Sarah and started giving Sarah detailed advice. He quickly became an unofficial mentor for her. Sarah admired Anders and found his advice useful, so really, this was the perfect situation.

But only a few weeks after the mentoring started, Sarah said to me.

“I feel really uncomfortable asking Anders for help. I don’t want to bother him. I am not sure what I can ask him for and how much. How do I know that he won’t suddenly think I am a nuisance and will change his opinion of me?”

Sarah’s questions points to the first critical mistake people make when they get a mentor.

Mistake #1: Not being clear on what’s in it for your mentor

Most of the time mentoring is offered for free and that makes it essential to be really clear about what the exchange is. Sarah didn’t know what Anders got out of the mentoring and as a result she felt guilty asking for more and using what he offered.

It might sound irrational but as human beings we are incredibly conscious of whether someone owes us or we owe someone. Be clear what the win-win situation is for both sides. 

When a friend offers to buy you a coffee, you automatically want to buy the next one. This is what builds human relationships – the continuous exchange of give and take – and we feel guilty when we feel like we have received more than we have given. So to enjoy receiving we have to be clear on what we can give in return. (Needless to say clarity on the exchange is even more important when the mentor is of the opposite sex).

Here’s something you can say to your mentor up front:

“I will get more out of your mentoring, if I am clear on what you get out of our relationship and how I can repay you. That way I can receive your advice and support comfortably.”

Often the mentor will say that they are happy to pass on what they have learned and that someone did this for them when they were at your stage. This is a perfectly valid exchange – because the mentor is giving back what was given to them from someone else. In that case it is up to you to now, or later, offer mentoring to someone who you can help.

Whatever they answer, listen carefully and if it is still not clear to you, ask them to say a bit more. It will result in both of you having a more satisfactory mentoring relationship when you know what is in it for the mentor.

Mistake #2: Not putting a structure in place for the relationship

Sarah received a lot of advice over the first few weeks from Anders, but then she suddenly didn’t hear anything from him for two weeks and didn’t know if the mentoring was over.

Anders had gotten busy and distracted and wasn’t sure whether Sarah wanted more, because she didn’t ask anything. Sarah didn’t ask because she didn’t want to be annoying.

The solution is simple:  Agree with your mentor how often you will have contact and in what way.

E.g. A call or face-to-face meeting once a month or every second month is usually a good frequency for a mentor relationship. You also want to agree whether your mentor has time to read emails or answer questions from you in between those regular meetings.

Mistake #3: Not talking about how to improve and evolve the relationship

What you need and want from your mentor is likely to change over time. For Sarah her needs changed because she was asked to head up a new strategic project. She was out of her comfort zone and needed new help. But Anders didn’t know that and he kept giving her mentoring advice about how to get the next promotion. All while Sarah was now drowning in her current project

Luckily this misalignment between the help needed and the mentoring given can easily be rectified.

By doing a short review every two-three sessions you will ensure that the mentoring relationship stays relevant. Agree this review process with your mentor at the start of the mentoring relationship, so you can both prepare. Use the questions below for the review. As the person being mentored, come prepared with your answers, share your thoughts with your mentor and ask them to comment.

Review questions:

  • What is the best thing up to now about the mentor relationship?
  • What would you like more of going forward?
  • What is not working for you?
  • What are you afraid to ask for, but it would be really helpful if you did?

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